Lady Detective Shadow


Up on the rooftops.

(2018) Martial Arts (Dark Coast) Shang Ring, Zhang Pei-yue, Qi Jing-bin, Zhang Ren-bo, Qiu Yun-he. Directed by Si Shu-Bu

 

In China, Wuxia films are a staple, much as superhero films are here and westerns were in the 50s. They made some brief cultural impact with the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon back in 2000 (and the legendary fight choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen who perfected wire work and is responsible for the graceful fight sequences in that film reportedly worked on this one) although it was to be, sadly, merely a brief moment in the American sun.

This film features Shang Ring in the title role as an itinerant Sherlock Holmes-like detective who travels throughout China solving whatever mystery comes her way. In the desert badlands of an, a string of brutal murders have been committed and the prefect of the city is sure that bandits from a neighboring town which is run by bandit gangs are to blame. Certainly, the evidence points in that direction as there is a literal convention of gangs occurring in an inn on the edge of town where the detective is staying along with her comic relief assistant (program note: none of the roles have been matched with the actors playing them in any literature I’ve been able to find other than the lead role). The Lady, whose given name is Sima Fei-yan, happens to be the niece of the city prefect who urges her to solve the crime for him. It also gives her a chance to catch up with the prefect’s son whom she grew up with and was at one time sweet on.

The closer she gets to the truth, however, the more she realizes that she is getting involved in something much larger than a mere serial killing. She is on the verge of unlocking an ancient secret that could mean life or death for those she cares about most.

Like many Wuxia films, the plot can be hard to follow sometimes and the subtitles roll across at light speed, sometimes too fast for even readers who are fairly speedy to make out. Characters show up in the film whose sole purpose is to kick the McGillicuddy out of somebody (or have it kicked out of them). The acting is over-the-top, the dialogue clunky and the special effects are often rudimentary at best. Some cinephiles turn their noses up at Wuxia for those reasons but true lovers of the genre realize that’s part of their goofy charm.

Most of the genre’s Western fans tend to come for the fight sequences and to be honest they won’t be disappointed, although they won’t be blown away either. This was a low-budget affair and at times it shows, whether on the lack of star power or the occasionally incomprehensible special effects decisions – just FYI guys, when horses gallop in the desert they leave a contrail of dust in their wake.

As entertainment goes, this is fun to watch if you understand the genre. Those who despise Wuxia films will likely not be converted to the cause watching this. Those that love them and forgive them their occasionally many sins are likely to find this a worthwhile investment of their time. Those unfamiliar with the genre and who are looking for an introduction to it, this probably isn’t a worthy starting point but at the same time it does maintain a lot of the elements common to most Wuxia films. One gets the sense that the producers were hoping to initiate a new franchise with this. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they were successful in that goal.

REASONS TO SEE: The action is non-stop, just the way it should be.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story can be hard to follow and the special effects are weak.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of martial arts violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This movie was initially made for Chinese television.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, FlixFling, Hoopla, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Sides of a Horn

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The Legend of King Solomon


The 70s called; they want their animation back.

(2017) Animated Feature (The Orchard) Starring the voices of Oded Menashe, Ori Pfeffer, Hana Laslo, Ori Laizerouvich, Nitzan Sitzer, Albert Cohen, Eden Har’el. Directed by Albert Hanan Kaminski

 

King Solomon has over the centuries come to symbolize wisdom. However, even the wisest of men were once the most foolish of teens, and getting over ourselves is a hefty dose of what growing up is all about.

Solomon (Menashe) has only recently ascended to the throne of Jerusalem, once held by his father King David. Solomon’s best friend is a fox named Toby (Laizerouvich) whose speech only Solomon can understand. Bilquis (uncredited), the beautiful but somewhat shallow Queen of Sheba has come to Jerusalem ostensibly to marry Solomon. The teen king, chafing in the shadow of his more noteworthy father, needs to find a way to impress the beautiful Queen.

When Hadad (Sitzer), a man whose city was leveled by David comes before Solomon to reclaim his family ring, Solomon arrogantly refuses. In retribution, Hadad frees Asmodeus, one of the most powerful of demons. Seeking to impress Bilquis, Solomon captures the demon and against all advice brings it into the city of Jerusalem where it escapes and enslaves the citizens of Jerusalem, then throws Solomon high into the air. Solomon should have been killed but he and Toby are rescued by a giant eagle who informs him that the only way to defeat Asmodeus is by the use of the Stone Worm, a powerful talisman hidden in the ancient city of Petra.

Solomon, disguising himself as an impoverished beggar so as not to attract attention to himself, gains entry to the city and finds work as a dishwasher working for the Princess Na’ama (Har’el) who finds out his true identity and determines to help the young king. Chased by Hadad and by the enslaved soldiers of Jerusalem as well as Na’ama’s angry father, Solomon must redeem himself and take back his city or lose everything that his father built.

This is definitely a children’s movie. The appeal is mainly going to be for little ones; we’ve got sassy talking animals, love stories on the level of a six-year-old’s crush on a seven-year-old and humor that consists mainly of pratfalls. With the cutesy talking animals and the dialogue that distinctly talks down to the audience, one gets the sense that the writers thought their target audience is much younger than it really is; either that or they don’t hang out with many seven-year-olds.

Although the subject is Biblical, the movie isn’t preachy in the same way it might be if a evangelical Christian group might have made it. This is mostly meant to be a fun look at a Biblical figure who really hasn’t gotten a whole lot of love from Hollywood despite being one of the best-known figures from the history of Israel. It surprises me frankly that there have been more movies about Achilles than there have been about King Solomon. I guess that being a mighty warrior is sexier than being a mighty thinker.

The music, much of it based on folk song forms of the region, is actually quite nice. The really glaring thing about the film though is the animation. Unlike most animated films these days, it’s 2D and it looks like something Don Bluth might have done – that’s not a knock, by the way. The backgrounds are nicely textured but the animators don’t really succeed in giving their creation life. There’s no soul here and for the most part it feels like something that was done not so much out of a passion for the story but because someone was footing the bill.

Parents who are strong in faith, both Christian and Jewish (and I suspect some Muslims as well) will probably delight in this. Those who aren’t religious should be aware that this isn’t a movie that’s trying to indoctrinate anybody; Solomon comes off as human and even though there are demons present there aren’t hosts of angels or any wise old priests telling him to put his faith in God. I just wish the animation was better and that the writers had given the young audience a little more credit.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the songs are pretty nice.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels like a bad attempt to mimic a Disney animated movie from the 70s. The humor is pretty dumb.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Legend of King Solomon is the first Israeli full-length animated feature that is intended for children.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Radial
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Davey and Goliath
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
The Bleeding Edge

Mine (2016)


Armie Hammer considers his options.

(2016) War (Well Go USA) Armie Hammer, Annabelle Wallis, Tom Cullen, Clint Dyer, Geoff Bell, Juliet Aubrey, Inés Piñar Mille, Luka Peros, Daniel Sandoval, Agustin Rodriguez, Yesarela Arzumendi, Manuel Medero, David Kirk Taylor (voice), Edoardo Purgatori (voice). Directed by Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro

 

Our adventures in the Middle East have put the United States in a Gordian knot of a predicament. We cannot withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan without creating chaos and yet if we stay we seem to become more tightly ensnared. We cannot stay put and yet we cannot step away.

Mike (Hammer) is a U.S. Marine sniper on a mission to take out a high-ranking terrorist. Intel has put him in a remote part of the desert far from anywhere, accompanied by his spotter Tommy (Cullen). Mike has the suspect in his sights but it turns out that he is there not to plan mayhem with his fellow terrorists but to see his son married. Mike hesitates and inadvertently gives away their position. The mission is officially FUBAR.

He and Tommy are forced to flee across the unforgiving desert. Sand storms have grounded the helicopters that would normally pick them up so they’re going to have to hoof it to a village six kilometers across the desert. With limited supplies, it will not be an easy journey but given their military training they should be able to make it. That is, until they walk dead into a minefield.

Mike ends up stepping on a mine but is able to stop himself from lifting his foot and detonating it. Tommy isn’t so lucky. He blows himself in half and leaves Mike to fend for himself. Using a little bit of improvising, he is able to contact his handlers and tell them of his predicament; they still can’t get their helicopters off the ground and with their assets deployed elsewhere it will be 52 long hours before someone can get to a lone Marine standing on a land mine.

As Mike is baked in the desert sun and runs out of water, he meets a friendly Berber (Dyer) who urges him to take a chance, step off the mine and free himself but Mike can’t do it. He begins to hallucinate and flashes back to a beautiful girlfriend (Wallis) he can’t quite commit to (but definitely should), an abusive alcoholic father (Bell) who called Mike’s spine into question and a mother (Aubrey) whose recent bout with cancer has left Mike shaken to the core and running away rather than facing what has befallen him at home.

With thirst, wild dogs, vengeful terrorists and sand storms besetting him, it is a test of Mike’s will in order to survive. Can he survive with one foot planted on the mine or will he take a leap of faith and free himself from his situation?

The movie is very much a metaphor for the American involvement in the Middle East, but that’s not really what drew me to this film. It isn’t easy to make a movie about a man locked in place in the middle of nowhere interesting and engaging and I wasn’t sure if the Italian duo known as Fabio and Fabio could pull it off but pull it off they did.

Much of the reason they did is that Hammer delivers a performance that improves and grows as the movie goes on. Initially he’s a ramrod-straight Marine with not just a stick up his butt but a dang Redwood up there, but as he starts to face his past so close to death, he becomes much more relatable. Hammer is extremely likable as an actor but the Lone Ranger debacle effectively derailed his career for big budget franchise films. This is the kind of movie that can put him back in the running for those sorts of roles.

There are some lapses in logic here; for one thing, a Marine sniper team never sets out into the desert all by their lonesome. There is going to be a support crew and a backup plan in case the sniper can’t get a shot at his target – and anyway a drone strike would have been far more effective in that situation. Also, standing with your weight on one foot for more than two days would have physiological effects on his muscles; there should have been some sort of reference to that in the movie. Even a Marine can’t prevent his body from doing what it is meant to do. Finally, a sand storm the size and magnitude of what was depicted in the film is not going to just leave a few cupfuls of sand on someone caught in it; it’s going to just about bury him and likely either suffocate him or at the very least blow him off of the land mine. The winds in one of those things are not that far from hurricane force.

All those unwelcome plot points aside, the movie still worked for me although I can understand why there was some eye-rolling in critical circles. I found that Hammer’s performance made up for the writing deficiencies and while the broken home-abusive father-commitment phobia subplots were a bit clichéd Hammer gave his character enough depth and dignity to put some real bite into those old tropes. I might have wished that Wallis had been given more than a generic “awesome girlfriend” character to work with – I would have liked to see what made Mike fall in love with her in the first place – and I might have wished that the Berber hadn’t been so much the “Magic Negro” trope of the sort that made The Legend of Bagger Vance so annoying. But as far as gripping premises go, I certainly got more than I wished.

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing concept that is pulled off nicely. Hammer gives a performance that gets stronger as the movie goes on.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses points for logical lapses and plot holes.. .
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity as well as some gruesome images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in the Middle East, the movie was filmed in the Canary Island substituting for the desert. The sandstorms were added digitally.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buried
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Get Out

Phantasm: Ravager


A dramatic background befits the late Angus Scrimm.

A dramatic background befits the late Angus Scrimm.

(2016) Horror (Well Go USA) Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, A. Michael Baldwin, Dawn Cody, Daniel Roebuck, Bill Thornbury, Stephen Jutras, Kathy Lester, Daniel Schweiger, John Johannessen, Ken Jones, Cesare Gagliardoni, Tim Devar, Vinton Heuck, Jonathan Sims, Kyle Shire, Jay Oliva, Gloria Lynne Henry, Cean Okada. Directed by David Hartman

sixdays2016-3

In many ways, the late 70s and early 80s were a golden age of horror that ranked right up there with the 30s when Universal seemed to release a classic horror movie every other week. Starting In 1978, low-budget indies were cranked out at an astonishing rate; most were in the vein of Halloween and Friday the 13th, both the 400-lb gorillas of the horror genre of the era, but some were a little bit different.

Phantasm was not a traditional film by any stretch of the imagination; it combines demonic horror, multi-dimensional head-trips and a kind of post-hippie weirdness that created a movie that was both spooky and trippy at once. So what if the mausoleum sets were obviously sets? So what if some of the editing was just a little bit awful? So what if the hot chicks just disappear from the movie without explanation? It didn’t get a lot of love at the box office or even on the home video front, but the love it got was forever, man. The people who got into the whole Phantasm franchise got into it heart and soul supporting it through three additional sequels.

This year has been a godsend for fans of the original. Not only is the original film being re-released with a digital restoration (funded partially by superfan J.J. Abrams) but also the first sequel to the franchise to make it into theaters in 18 years. It will almost certainly be the last, sadly; Angus Scrimm, who played the seminal villain The Tall Man passed away this past January 9th of natural causes at the age of 89. Hopefully he didn’t get sent to an alternate dimension as a misshapen dwarf to be a slave.

Like the original movie, this one is a bit of a mindbender. Reggie (Bannister), the ice cream vendor who has become something of a Rambo-esque warrior battling the machinations of The Tall Man, ends up in several different dimensions; one a post-apocalyptic future in which the Tall Man has won and gigantic spheres monitor the planet, indiscriminately killing anyone whom it seems fit to destroy, and the world is overwhelmed by the yellow-blooded slave-dwarves who resemble Jawas from the Star Wars franchise somewhat.

At the same time, he is in a rest home, infected by a disease released into the world by the Tall Man but in the present. After picking up a beautiful young woman named Dawn (Cody) while out in the desert, he observes her murder at the hands of one of the Tall Man’s silver spheres which uses a fork-like appendage to lock into her forehead, and then a drill spirals into her skull and into her brain. Not cool at all, Tall Man.

Now he is reunited with Michael (Baldwin), the kid brother of Jody (Thornbury) who died in the first movie – except that in the apocalyptic dimension Jody is alive and fighting with Michael and Dawn (who’s alive in that dimension too) against the Tall Man. Reggie seems to be the key to chasing him out of all the dimensions – except that Reggie might just be crazy as a bedbug.

Some of you may have read the synopsis and started to type in a different web address in your browser, but just bear with me for a moment. Yeah, I know it sounds insane and confusing but as you’re watching it things just make a weird kind of sense. Of all the sequels in the franchise, this one comes closest to replicating the out-there vibe of the original and ends up being a little bit of an homage as well as a sequel.

Another thing the movie does incredibly well is capture the 70s horror film vibe that is so very much missing from modern horror films (particularly those of the studio variety) which often feel mass-produced and soulless. Say what you want about the production values (and some of the computer effects are genuinely cringe-inducing), this movie has heart and that counts for something.

Scrimm’s Tall Man is one of the most genuinely scary movie villains of all time; I used to have nightmares about him standing in front of an inter-dimensional rift, pointing a finger at me and intoning “BOYYYYYYY!!!” If you’ve seen him do it in any of the five Phantasm films, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. While many horror movie villains these days are creepy, few are as genuinely scary as the Tall Man.

Scrimm still is a force of nature here but the rest of the cast is just adequate, acting-wise. Mostly original writer-director Don Coscarelli hired people he knew and they’ve stuck with him (and he with them) through thick and thin and there’s something to be said for that. They aren’t likely to contend for Oscars anytime soon, but they do the job as well as they’re able and seeing all the familiar faces onscreen evokes a pretty strong sense of nostalgia, for which there is something also to be said. However, I would like to tell these gentlemen those ponytails just look kind of douche-y on men. There are more Brony tails here than there should be in a single movie. It’s just not right.

There are a couple of other obstacles to giving this a much higher score. The ending is a disappointment and there is also a scene involving a horse which is likely to give animal lovers serious nightmares – if you are sensitive to violence to animals, you might want to think twice about seeing this or if you do, have someone with you who can tell you when the scene ends. I’m not particularly a lover of horses but I found the scene kind of wrenching.

If this is to be the final film in the series and there’s no reason to think it won’t be, it’s a fitting send-off. I hope Coscarelli and his crew leave on this high note. I don’t think Scrimm can be replaced, and putting a different villain in will simply call attention to the glaring absence of the REAL Tall Man. I suspect that the movie will be much more meaningful to people of my age group who grew up with the series rather than those discovering it for the first time; while Ravager can probably be watched without seeing the first four movies in the series, I think it will be helpful to at least be familiar with them before seeing this one. Fans of the series will likely be satisfied with this one. And for my money, it’s kind of comforting to know that in fact they can make them like they used to.

REASONS TO GO: The film really captures the vibe of 70s horror films. Scrimm remains one of the iconic horror villains. It ends up being a nice tribute to the franchise.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit off-putting. The horse scene may be too disturbing for animal lovers. There are too many “Brony tails” for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of frightening images and gore as well as a surfeit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the only film in the franchise not directed by Don Coscarelli who remained with the project as a producer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Evil Dead
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Day 4 of Six Days of Darkness!

Death Valley (2015)


Upon reflection, some parties bring out our worst images.

Upon reflection, some parties bring out our worst images.

(2015) Thriller (Indican) Katrina Law, Lochlyn Munro, Victoria Pratt, Nick Tarabay, Kelly Hu, Jeremy Ratchford, Juliette Beavan, Cela Scott. Directed by T.J. Scott

It is said that in the desert that there are no shadows to hide in and that the scorching sun boils away the pretense and exposes the real person inside. I’m not sure who said it. Maybe it was just me.

A quartet of attractive people are driving on a brand new road in Death Valley on the way from a charity party in Hollywood to a spur-of-the-moment wedding in Vegas. The road is so new, in fact, that it isn’t open to the public yet but for producer Billy Rich (Munro), Hollywood Golden Boy, rules don’t apply and every door is open. He is the prospective groom and star actress wanna-be Annie Gunn (Law) is the bride. Along for the ride are married couple Roy (Tarabay) and Jamie (Pratt) Dillen, who won tickets to the star-studded exclusive party on a radio station promotion and have befriended Billy and Annie. Presumably, they will be the witnesses at the wedding.

One thing that is true about the desert is that oddball things can happen at any moment. A scantily dressed blonde (Beavan) emerges from out of nowhere and starts shooting at the people in the car. Rich, who is behind the wheel, swerves and manages to hit the blonde before skidding off the road.

The blonde is a goner. So is the car, which the blonde managed to perforate in some vital places before expiring. Of course, there is no cell service in the middle of nowhere – and because the road hasn’t opened yet, not much hope of any good Samaritans showing up from either direction. The old road is said to be about five miles away, paralleling the new road. With no real choice, the quartet begin hoofing it, taking with them the champagne they were going to toast with at the wedding.

The further they walk, the more frayed their nerves get – and the more secrets get revealed. Like a good noir film, layers begin to be scrubbed away by the gritty sand exposing further layers below. Will they find the road and presumably rescue? Or will the journey there kill the lot of them?

Those who are paying attention to the opening scene will know the answer to that. Veteran TV director Scott has a good feel for suspense, building slowly without turning it into a tension fest. This is more than a slow burn than a quick flame. He also makes excellent use of the environment, giving us some really beautifully desolate footage of the desert and giving the audience an excellent feel for how vast and forbidding an environment it is.

The movie’s problems tend to lie in the characterizations. It’s difficult to find someone to identify with in this movie because all of the main characters are pretty rotten, particularly when their guard is let down after the downing of much booze and pills. While it is kind of enjoyable to watch some sleazy Hollywood types get their comeuppance, from a human standpoint it isn’t easy to watch people suffer even though they may well deserve it.

It is also not easy to watch people make bad decisions, some of them incomprehensibly bad. For example, one of the women given an opportunity to change from her party dress and heels into something more appropriate refuses, and goes out walking on the desert sands in her heels. While I admire the grit of women who walk in heels because it requires balance and a certain amount of fortitude, I would think that heels would be absolute torture on sand. Not that I would know. In any case, I don’t think any sane person would choose that nor would anyone in a survival situation allow vanity to trump practicality.

Another thing I would have recommended is a little more focus on the Billy Rich-Annie Gunn relationship particularly in flashback. We see a little bit of them interacting at the party but we never get a sense as to why someone who is as likely commitment-phobic as Billy would be would agree to pull the marriage trigger with someone he just met. We get that Annie’s sexuality is a large part of the reason but we don’t really get to see it on display except for one scene in the desert. A little more exposition would have been nice on this matter.

Most of the technical aspects of the film are strong, but a caveat – I’m a fan of 8mm, the band that delivers the soundtrack here. While this isn’t their best work, it was definitely a plus for me to hear them doing their thing on a movie soundtrack. There are those who likely won’t think it is the advantage that I do. C’est la musique.

The ending is on the dark side, but that’s what happens with noir. You don’t get many uplifting, feel-good movies of the year with noir. This is a movie about a dark descent of four people who are More Than What They Seem, another noir trope. Fans of the genre should be sufficiently pleased although the movie has its share of flaws. Nonetheless, a fine effort for those looking for some sun-baked (literally) off the beaten path entertainment.

REASONS TO GO: Some beautifully desolate cinematography. Dark ending. Soundtrack by 8mm.
REASONS TO STAY: Lack of sympathetic characters. Some weak moments in the script. A little bland for the type of movie it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, some sexuality and some graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Law and Tarabay have both appeared in the television shows Arrow and Spartacus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lifeboat
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Walk

Mad Max: Fury Road


You don't want to make Max mad.

You don’t want to make Max mad.

(2015) Action (Warner Brothers) Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, John Howard, Richard Carter, Iota, Angus Sampson, Jennifer Hagan, Megan Gale, Melissa Jaffer, Merita Jurisic, Gillian Jones, Joy Smithers, Antoinette Kellermann, Christina Koch. Directed by George Miller

The future famously isn’t what it used to be. However, in the minds of some visionaries, it’s exactly what it used to be – only more of it.

Max Rockatansky (Hardy) is a loner living in a post-Apocalyptic world where petroleum has become scarce, clean water even more scarce and chaos reigns. Governments have fallen in the nuclear fallout of the last desperate grasp of nations trying to assert control where none was possible. Max is haunted by visions of a daughter and wife he couldn’t save.

Captured by the War Boys of Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne), his fate is to be used as a human blood bag for War Boy Nux (Hoult), who like most of the inhabitants of Joe’s Citadel, is poisoned by radioactivity. Joe asserts control in two ways; by controlling the only clean water in the area, and by asserting an almost messianic mythology over the War Boys, who believe fervently that if they die in battle for their Immortan that they will enter Valhalla and live once again in paradise. Sounds a little bit like a jihadist, no?

Imperator Furiosa (Theron), a one-armed exceptional warrior who has earned Joe’s trust, is sent on a supply run to get gas and armaments in a world of dwindling resources. She is driving an 18-wheel war wagon, a tricked out tractor trailer that is bristling with armaments and carries water for the masters of the Bullet Farm and Gastown.

However, Furiosa has plans of her own and it means deviating off course into a dangerous world beyond the Citadel and their allies. When Joe discovers that she is carrying stolen goods – his wives, women who haven’t fallen prey to radiation poisoning – he gathers the troops to get his precious cargo back. Through a violent set of circumstances, a suspicious Max ends up throwing in his lot with the women and the chase is truly underway.

Some critics have sniffed that the movie is essentially one two hour chase sequence and they aren’t wrong. However, there isn’t a moment in the movie where you’ll be bored unless of course you don’t like action movies to begin with (and some people don’t). This is innovative, tense stuff here and the testosterone will flow.

Hardy took his cues from original Mad Max Mel Gibson and broods pretty much non-stop, clearly ill-at-ease with people in general and suspicious of them in particular. He’s taciturn and doesn’t speak much unless necessary. However, deep down he has a good heart and can’t turn away from good people in trouble. He is well aware that there are precious few good people left since the crazies have already slaughtered most of them.

Theron, an Oscar-winning actress, does a bang-up job here. Although reportedly she had difficulties getting along with both Hardy and Miller, she delivers a performance as good as any she’s ever given. You can see the pain of her hard and brutal life in her eyes but she hasn’t quite lost hope yet. She’s fighting to make a future that isn’t as ugly as her past, and she’s inspired the various brides, who are clad in diaphanous white garments that leave little to the imagination.

The post-Armageddon landscape that George Miller has imagined is not over-exposed and oversaturated but vivid and colorful. Thank cinematographer John Seale for making a dusty, lifeless desert still appear to be anything but beautiful. It may be post-apocalyptic but that doesn’t mean it has to look ugly.

The vehicles and characters here are all wonderful and innovative. The vehicles all bristle with spikes or men on long poles dropping bombs, or gigantic drums or a dude with an electric guitar that spits flames. It may be post-apocalyptic but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be fun. As for the characters, they are powder-white, or covered with pustules, or chrome lips or bullets instead of teeth. This isn’t the Mad Max milieu of Beyond Thunderdome or The Road Warrior; it clearly is evolved from them however.

The non-stop violence may turn some off but for my tastes, this is purely unadulterated summer entertainment. The stunt work here is amazing and that Miller has chosen to use practical effects as much as possible (save for an impressive CGI sandstorm) is admirable.

There has been a lot of discussion whether this movie is pro-feminist or anti-feminist. I will say this; if civilization ends, feminism will be trumped by Darwinism. I don’t think Miller is making a comment on feminism here at all; sometimes we need to turn off our sensitivities and just enjoy the ride.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible stunts. Imaginative vehicles and characters. Absolutely made for summer viewing.
REASONS TO STAY: Relentless violence..
FAMILY VALUES: Intense violence throughout, some disturbing images and a scene of mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hardy had lunch with Mel Gibson to discuss taking over what many consider his signature role; Gibson was not only fine with it, he apparently was enthusiastic that the role was being taken over by an actor of Hardy’s stature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Furious 7
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Body

Forev


This road trip is no picnic.

This road trip is no picnic.

(2013) Comedy (Gravitas) Noel Wells, Matt Mider, Amanda Bauer, Timmy L’Hereux, Chuck McCarthy, Dominic DeVore, Gina Gallego, Timothy Charlton, Gary G. “Thang” Johnson, Barb Mackerer, Hunter Hill, Pedro Lopez, Logan Strobel, Naaman Esquivel, Connor Morris, Marian McGinnis, Jon Katz, Chris Merchant, Kate Johnson. Directed by Molly Green and James Leffler

Florida Film Festival 2014

When you’re young, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to be impulsive. If you think about things too much, you lose the moment and miss out on some fairly amazing experiences. Of course, if you think about things, you might actually save yourself from some pretty sorry situations.

Pete (Mider) is minding his own business, eating pizza in his apartment after a hard day’s work when who barges in but his neighbor Sophie (Wells), an actress. However, she doesn’t realize she’s barged in – she’s too busy making out passionately with her hookup du jour and thinks she’s in her own apartment. After Pete clears his throat, HDJ heads into the bathroom and Sophie hears him tell his friends he’ll be joining them in about 15 minutes after he’s done. Sophie decides that’s an offer that she can pretty much pass up without a problem.

After an audition for a hot dog commercial doesn’t go as well as she might have hoped, she decides to hang out with Pete whom she knows only marginally. His carpet is quite comfortable as it turns out and she is loathe to leave it. Pete says offhandedly “Since you’re going to be here anyway, we might as well get married.” I know, lame, right? Still from such small acorns mighty oaks may grow.

Sadly for Sophie, Pete has to run an errand and Sophie decides to tag along. The errand turns out to be a six hour drive from L.A. to Phoenix to pick up Pete’s sister Jess (Bauer) from college. On the way there, to a killer indie rock soundtrack, Pete and Sophie decide Pete’s marriage proposal wasn’t a bad idea at all. Voila, they’re engaged!

Jess is rightfully incredulous at her brother’s newfound relationship status and incredulity grows into downright hostility when she discovers how long the happy couple have been together. Jess, who was been in a relationship with a promising baseball player whom Pete worshipped for awhile, also has a relationship status change of her own – she’s gone from “involved” to “it’s complicated” to “single.” It’s times like these when you really need Facebook to let everyone know what’s going on.

A previous mishap involving an armadillo leads to the proverbial car breakdown in the desert, stranding them in a town so small that even the one horse has grown bored and hitchhiked to L.A. Sophie gets the surprising news that she got the part in the commercial after all and has to be in L.A. in two days to shoot it. When Pete gets into a fight with a local hitting on his fiancée (after said fiancée eggs him on) , Pete and Sophie head back to the hotel for some awkward cuddling while Jess finds herself a bearded guy to hang out with. When she doesn’t come back to the hotel room, Pete and Sophie go on a desperate search, the clock ticking on Sophie’s job all the while.

If you see enough independent films, you are going to find this not only familiar but downright “been there done that.” It has enough indie clichés to fill a hipster film festival; the cute couple acting zany and childish, the indie rock soundtrack that substitutes for a Greek chorus, the young people at least one of whom is an artist marching to their own drummer and so on. Throw in the clichés of modern romantic comedies and you have a case of cliché overload.

The young cast is actually quite good and have some decent chemistry – Mider and Wells both attended the University of Texas with the co-directors, so they have known each other awhile. That serves them well in terms of their banter and interaction. The script relies heavily on charm and has its share of funny moments.

The biggest problem here is that after awhile you start feeling the distinct need to stand up in your seat, shake your fist at the screen and scream at the top of your lungs “REAL PEOPLE DON’T ACT THIS WAY!!!” And they don’t. Personally, I think the film would have been far more effective if they’d chosen instead to make the whole marriage thing a running joke between Sophie and Pete which gradually becomes something real. Instead, you get the sense that these are two dim bulbs who think that marriage and relationships leading to marriage are something so easy you can just snap your fingers and it happens. Jess gets it but you get the sense that she’s a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Thus.

I do think Green and Leffler have some decent instincts but they need to find their own voice. The movie relies too much on established indie moves, so much so that the few moves of its own that it shows are kind of lost in the shuffle. A movie like this one hits the target more readily if you can recognize the characters in it. Instead, we get the hoary old indie song and dance about 20-something hipsters trying to impress somebody with how spontaneous they are. I get that I sound like a “Get off My Lawn, you young punks” critic but I don’t have a problem with spontaneity or young people – I have a problem with those elements in a movie are not given enough thought or depth to make the movie resonate better.

Incidentally, the movie remains on the festival circuit for the time being. A VOD and home video release has been scheduled. You can pre-order the movie on DVD/Blu-Ray beginning on May 1 by clicking on the photo which will take you to the movie’s website.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent laughs. Attractive leads with lots of potential.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many indie-cute clichés. Characters not acting like real people. Predictable

FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wells joined the cast of Saturday Night Live this season as a featured player.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Doomsdays

Rubber


Rubber

Just rollin’ along.

(2010) Horror Spoof (Magnet) Stephen Spinella, Jack Plotnick, Wings Hauser, Roxanne Mesquida, Ethan Cohn, Charlie Koontz, Daniel Quinn, Devin Brochu, Hayley Holmes, Haley Ramm, Cecilia Antoinette, David Bowe, Remy Thorne, Tara Jean O’Brien. Directed by Quentin Dupieux

 

Sometimes things happen for no reason. Never is that more evident than in the movies. Some things just occur because they need to for the plot to advance. If you think about it too much your brain explodes.

In the middle of a desert (I’ve heard tell it’s California) a group of people gather. They are waiting expectantly, for what we don’t know. Suddenly a car roars in, knocking over a bunch of chairs. From the trunk comes Lieutenant Chad (Spinella), ranting about the movies and why people don’t use the bathroom in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the answer? no reason). He then presents for the onlookers a kind of live movie which they watch with binoculars and comment regularly on the goings on.

A tire (named Robert in the credits) stirs to life, half-buried in the sand. It takes halting attempts to rise and roll, often ending with it back on its side but eventually it begins rolling. It discovers it can direct its own travels and then it also finds it can cause things to explode, starting with birds and scorpions and graduating to larger animals…and humans. In the case of humans, it’s the heads that go boom.

It finds its way to a motel where it rolls into bed, watching an exercise video. It watches a maid make up the room. It evades the cops. Why? I’m sure you can guess.

Think of a nihilistic “Seinfeld” with a Dada streak a mile long, only without the standup comedy. The humor here is far more subtle and black. The horror element is more in the gore than suspense or atmosphere. They don’t always mix well.

Dupieux, who also operates under the nom des artes of Mr. Oizo (an electro musician and performance artist) has a twisted vision which I have to give props for. It is unique and unlike any other movie which you’re ever likely to see. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it necessarily something you would want to see. The constant breaking of the fourth wall by the actors and the audience/chorus gets to be irritating after awhile, plus the constant nihilistic “let’s move the plot in unexpected directions for no reason” is often confusing and also gets annoying.

I don’t have any problem with nihilism. I don’t really have a problem for making a movie about the randomness of life. I do have a problem with stringing together a random sequence of events that takes off willy-nilly just because you can. Actions, believe it or not, have consequences. They don’t occur in a vacuum and the best movies understand that. While I appreciate the sense of silliness and the courage to try something completely different, at the end of the day I wound up not connecting to this and just kind of enduring it as it came to its end. I need a little bit more from my Art.

WHY RENT THIS: Clever idea.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks in execution. The black comedy and horror elements don’t mesh well. At the end of the day more pretentious than outrageous.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, plenty of foul language and some twisted situations that have an underlying sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Quinn, who plays one of the spectators here, also played a Scanner in Scanner Cop who was able to blow up people’s heads with the power of his mind as the tire does here.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an interview with Dupieux conducted by a blow-up sex doll. Of course.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $100,370 on an unreported production budget; I think it might have made a profit but more likely broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Howard the Duck (seriously, I couldn’t think of a single movie remotely like this).

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Klown

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (San qiang pai an jing qi)


A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop

Two out of three...

(2009) Comedy (Sony Classics) Honglei Sun, Xiao Shen-Yang, Ni Yan, Dahong Ni, Ye Cheng, Mao Mao, Benshan Zhao, Ran Cheng, Julien Gaudfroy, Shuo Huang, Wenting Li, Sisi Wang, Xiaojuan Wang, Na Wei. Directed by Zhang Yimou

People are fallible. We are prone to making mistakes and letting our hearts guide our actions when our heads should prevail. We often fail to recognize or foresee the consequences of those actions when we take them.

Wang (Dahong Ni) is the owner of a noodle shop in the middle of nowhere. Location being everything (even in ancient China), his clientele mainly consists of wanderers and nomads on their way to somewhere else – anywhere else but there. He has a comely wife (Ni Yan) who has been unable to give him children. Frustrated at both his wife and his lot in life, the miserly Wang takes out his frustrations on his wife and his staff, but mostly on the former whom he humiliates sexually whenever he can.

She responds by buying a gun from a Persian trader (Gaudfroy). Now, she exclaims, she has the most powerful weapon in the world at her disposal. She also has a lover, the cowardly and timid Li (Shen-Yang) who mostly wears pink and rarely does anything that his lover doesn’t approve of.

Wang doesn’t like this much, as you might imagine. So much so that he talks to the corrupt and jaded local magistrate Zhang (Honglei Sun) and persuades him to kill his wife and her lover, then make the bodies disappear – for a large fee. Zhang figures he can do better and so he kills Wang instead, hoping to get all of his loot – except he killed Wang before he could get the key to his safe…and Wang just won’t stay dead…

Yimou, the award-winning director of such movies as Raise the Red Lantern and Curse of the Golden Flower (not to mention the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics), remade this from the Coen Brothers 1984 cult classic Blood Simple and overlaid it with his stylish and colorful visual sense.

He also chose to take the dark, noir-ish thriller that the Coens made and turn it into a broad comedic thriller. Purists are going to be horrified about that, and a lot of critics who loved the original had a hard time with the remake.

It certainly is a different film, although it strikes all the right plot points as the original, only approaching them differently and adding a subplot about a rival gang of thieves. The darker tones of the original are gone though; this is far more light-hearted.

However, Yimou has that distinctive sense of color and scope that make his films so breathtaking and awe-inspiring and he uses it to his advantage here. Although the noodle shop is grim and colorless, those that live in it wear brightly colored robes and carry on in an epic vista that wouldn’t look out of place in a John Ford western.

Sun gets the most of my attention; Zhang is laconic and somewhat low-key but he has a vicious side that reminds me of a cobra. Sun gives him that sense that something dark and nasty hides just below the surface. Playing a man who is dangerous is a difficult proposition; doing it without giving much away emotionally is even harder but Sun pulls it off.

The comedy is very broad and exaggerated, which while common with Asian audiences might be out of step with more subtle American tastes. Think of it as a Hanna Barbera cartoon without the intellectual undertones. It’s not for children though – but some of the set pieces would definitely appeal to less sophisticated senses of humor.

There is some bloodshed though – this isn’t strictly comedy – but considering how sexual the situation is there is almost no sexuality, which again illustrates the cultural differences between the Americans and the Chinese. This gives the movie a curiously sexless feel, and the sex did add a certain amount of kick to the original like adding jalapenos to a salsa.

I’m a big fan of Yimou but this one misfired for me. I’m recommending it mainly because the man always knows how to make a great-looking movie and this isn’t an exception but be advised that American audiences might have a tough time with the humor and the tone. If you can overlook that, you will find yourself enjoying the movie on purely a visceral level, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Yimou is one of the most striking visual directors of our time. Some broad laughs.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The noir tone of the original is sorely missed.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence and some sexual themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the original was sent in modern (at the time) rural Texas, the remake is set in the remote desert Gansu province of ancient China.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The making-of feature is longer than the actual movie, but there are parts of it which are fascinating.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $38M on a $12M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Illusionist

Rango


Rango

Rango and posse mount some roadrunners in search of Wile E. Coyote.

(2011) Animated Feature (Paramount) Starring the voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant, Ray Winstone, Ian Abercrombie, Charles Fleischer, Claudia Black. Directed by Gore Verbinski

We all want to find ourselves. Our entire life journey is all about that – discovering who we are and what we’re meant to be. The journey isn’t always an easy one and the answers are rarely obvious – at first. But the truer we stay to ourselves, the easier the path becomes.

Rango (Depp) is a lizard. No, that’s not quite right – he’s a chameleon, but he’s lived in a terrarium all his life. He wants to be a thespian; not the kind that can get him shot in Arizona. No, the kind that recites Shakespeare and waits tables while they go on auditions. However, his audience is kind of limited, especially with a company that includes a plastic palm tree, a wind-up fish toy and a dead cockroach. Someone really needs to clean out the terrarium.

However, things are about to change. A bump in the road literally finds Rango stranded in the desert. A somewhat squashed armadillo (Molina) steers Rango to a small town named Dirt. A young farmer’s daughter (no cracks!) named Beans (Fisher) rescues Rango and gives him a ride into town. There his tales of heroic acts he never actually did win the admiration of the townies, including a doe-eyed badger named Priscilla (Breslin).

The mayor (Beatty), an aging turtle who might remind older viewers of John Huston’s character in Chinatown and younger ones of Mr. Waternoose in Monsters, Inc. deputizes…um, sheriffizes…oh Hell, anoints Rango Sheriff. He is charged with protecting the town’s most precious asset – water. The town’s supply is dwindling and their longtime source seems to be drying up. When Balthazar (Stanton), a grizzled mole steals the town’s remaining supply, things get ugly in a hurry.

This is one of the most offbeat movies you’re ever likely to see, a wild mash-up of Carlos Castaneda, Hunter S. Thompson, Quentin Tarantino and Sergio Leone, with a very heavy nod to the desert of the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons from Warner Brothers. I’m pretty certain mescaline was involved with the writing of this movie. Then again, Verbinski – auteur of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies that also starred Depp, is behind the camera so that explains a lot.

It’s a great looking movie. The desert is bleak and beautiful, stark and hostile. The town is a hodgepodge of found items (a discarded mailbox is the Post Office) that looks familiar and rundown at once. It doesn’t look so much lived in as it does inhabited. The animals are rendered beautifully, anthropomorphic but never cartoonish. Ironically, Rango is the most cartoon-like of all the characters; the rest look like something out of a Salvador Dali painting if Dali had embraced photorealism.

Depp is terrific as the titular character, but then it really isn’t much of a stretch. I thought it brilliant they made him a chameleon who wants to be an actor – how much more ironic can you get than that? Rango is all bluster and bravado but he isn’t really a bad sort; he’s just trying to survive without any real survival skills.

There are some very interesting supporting roles here. Nighy plays Rattlesnake Jake, a mean little sidewinder who carries a Gatling gun on his rattle and may be the most villainous gunslinger ever. There is a late cameo for someone playing the Spirit of the West that’s perfectly done; the person depicted isn’t the actor you actually hear speaking but you’d never know it, but it is so right you instantly smile and nod.

Some parents may be thinking of bringing their kids to see this just because it’s animated and I would urge them strongly to think hard about it. There are some pretty scary moments here, some choice words and it is not as kid-friendly as other animated features are. If your kids are five or six, I’d probably send you over to Mars Needs Moms first; some of the images might give ‘em nightmares. Then again, Mars Needs Moms might give you nightmares.

The story is a bit on the adult side as well, and while some of the characters might well generate some kid-attraction, they are far from cute and cuddly here. In fact, I suspect this movie was geared to adults first and kids second. Too much of the weirdness may go sailing over the heads of the Nickelodeon generation, like the Greek chorus of Mexican mariachis who keep promising that Rango is going to die. If you can’t trust a mariachi, who can you trust?

With animated movies so generally mediocre last year, the first two I’ve seen this year (this one and Gnomeo and Juliet) have been surprisingly good. Both took some chances with their stories and wound up hitting if not home runs, solid ground rule doubles. Rango gets a slight nod because the animation is so much better than the other, but hopefully this is a sign that we might see better overall quality in the animation genre this year.

REASONS TO GO: The animation is simply amazing. The story is a bit more adult than the average animated feature. Anything that has the potential for resurrecting the Western is fine by me.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the imagery, particularly those centering around Rattlesnake Jack, may be too intense for the little ones.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, some images of smoking, a little bit of action and some crude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animation was done by noted effects company Industrial Light and Magic – their first animated feature.

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly worth seeing in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: A Map of the World